McCloskey on Happiness and Flourishing

Speaking of McCloskey, I’m enjoying her response to critics [doc] of Bourgeois Virtues. I’m symapthetic to her position on happiness in this passage:

[Graafland and I] do more sharply disagree that “the goal of virtues is just this: to become happy.”  The Greek word that started the discussion, eudaimonia, is indeed sometime translated erroneously as “happiness,” which then slides over to the pot-of-pleasure definition favored by modern utilitarians.  A well-fed cat sitting on the window sill in the afternoon sun would report to a happiness-questionnaire scientist that she was happy, being at 9 on a scale of 10 (reserving 10 for sexual intercourse).  But we are not cats—though I would be the last to deny that a cat-like “happiness” from time to time is an element of a full life.  Baskin-Robbins. 

One would have thought that more economists, though, would be familiar with the Experience-Machine example that Robert Nozick devised in 1974 (I discuss it in The Bourgeois Virtues, pp. 124-125).  “Superduper neuropsychologists,” wrote Nozick, “would stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel” any life you want. Then you would die.  “Would you plug in?”  No, of course not.  You are you.  You have an identity (faith) and projects (hope) and loyalties (love).  Being Queen Elizabeth I would be great fun, the fun we get from a novel or a history about her reign, or a TV series starring Helen Mirren.  But in a novel or TV series we do not have to give up being ourselves, and won’t.  Nozick’s argument devastates any version of utilitarianism that does not have a serious theory of identity (faith, hope, love).  The experiment shows, as Nozick put it elsewhere, that “we are not empty containers or buckets to be stuffed with good things.”

The better translation of Plato’s and Aristotle’s eudaimonia is “fulfilled” or “flourishing” or close to literally (though having then anachronistic Judeo-Christian overtones) “blessed,” since the word literally means “having good spirits attending one.”  Doubtless, if she was lucky enough in 1800 to miss smallpox and starvation, Burns’ impoverished Scottish nut-brown maiden, “Her eye so mildly beaming/ Her look so frank and free,” equaled in “happiness” defined in the pot-of-pleasure sense the average person on the streets of Glasgow nowadays.  That is what recent research on so-called happiness claims, quite plausibly.  Nonetheless the modern Glaswegian has gigantically greater scope.  She can do 100 times more of some things, leading a fuller life-fuller in travel, education, ease of life, ease of listening to “The Nut-Brown Maiden” sung in English and Gaelic on the internet.  “Happiness” viewed as self-reported mood is not the point of a fully human life.  Therefore I think it obvious that modern economic growth has greatly improved modern life, and made people better as much as better off.  Some people don’t get it, true, and watch TV for six hours a day and eat Frittos by the bagful.  Therefore let us preach to them.

I don not believe that recent happiness research in fact implies that the nut-brown maiden would have reported a level of happiness no less than contemporary Glaswegians. But the broader point is bang on.

Nozick is right that we’re not utility pots. But I’m skeptical of superstrong notions of personal continuity, too, (“faith” is the right word for identity) and therefore I’m skeptical of certain kinds of strong conceptions of flourishing as living according to virtue — unless simply we define virtues as “those habits of mind and action that facilitate flourishing” — in which case, we need an independent account of flourishing. I’m not skeptical of the idea that neural deselection and myelination creates deeply persistent skills or excellences that one might want to identify with virtuea. But I doubt that (1) there is a pattern of such brain development that counts as virtue everywhere and always, completely independent of local social structure, and that (2) the internalization of local norms — the kind we tend to identify with virtues — generally goes this deep. Once acquired, it is difficult to lose a well-practiced backswing or the hard-won ability to see through to an argument’s implicit logical structure. But given the right shift in social context, many of our virtues can turn on a dime.